Head of School Searches

Paul Keller's Deep Dive Into The Head Search Process

Gowan Group offers a unique opportunity for schools in leadership transition.  All of our consultants know the process from all of the key perspectives.  We have been on search committees, been candidates ourselves, and counseled schools through the process.  That expertise is difficult to replicate.  Most importantly, our collective experiences helps us to look objectively to keep reminding schools what they need in a candidate to thrive going forward.

I was recently in a group of around 80 independent school administrators where a straw poll was conducted about school leadership.  The first question asked was how many schools either had a first year Head, an Interim Head, or were in their current Head’s final year of service.  While I knew that many Baby Boomers were retiring around the same time, I was shocked to see that in this room over half of the participants raising their hands.  Clearly there has not been a time in our industry where we are having so much transition in executive leadership in such a condensed period of time.

Another trend that has given me pause for concern is seeing how many schools are looking for new leadership only a few years after having hired a Head that the community was excited about.  Though each situation is unique, there are an inordinate number of schools and/or school leaders who have come to a conclusion that their union is not a “good fit”.  How can so many smart people involved in a thorough and exhaustive search process meet so many talented candidates only to find out after two years that they were wrong or vice versa?

It seems that part of the problem lies in schools confusing their needs for the future with the excitement of meeting a specific candidate.  Once a search process is in its intermediate phases, a good committee will have painted a fairly clear picture of the talents that the right candidate will possess.  This will combine both the ethos of the school with the unique circumstances where a school finds itself at that moment.  However, once candidates begin to come to campus, many schools lose sight of the hard work they have done.  

The visceral feeling of a person in front of you is very different than a resume.  All too often, we get swept up with how a candidate makes us feel rather than looking at what they bring.  This echoes recent research that points to interview performance as one of the weakest indicators of job success, but one that is heavily relied upon.  However, on an informal level, I continue to be surprised by how many times the strengths of who gets named and the needs of the school get mismatched.  The committee begins with a clear plan for what they are looking for, but then get sidetracked by the human element once they start meeting people.     

Head searches are an arduous task for a school community. There is no one way for a search committee to go about it and members of the team should be wary of any firms that use a “cookie cutter” approach.  If outside expertise is implemented, there are several questions to consider.  For instance, how much time will a firm avail to you in order to get to know the uniqueness of your school community?  How well do they know your particular market?  What are some nontraditional avenues they use to find qualified school leaders?  If you do decide to conduct a search without outside counsel, have a clear and transparent plan that gathers feedback from a wide cross section of the community and pay close attention to what they say. 

Contributed by Paul Keller, Managing Director with Gowan Group


New and Noteworthy




Gowan Group is so excited to announce the hiring of our newest Managing Director, Marisa Soulios Felt. Marisa is a long-time friend of Gowan Group and she has enjoyed a wonderful career as a school leader and program transformer.  Marisa brings 20 years’ professional experience in education and is a lifer in independent schools. She served as Assistant Head of School at The Hamlin School in San Francisco and previously the Middle School Head at Hamlin School, Viewpoint School in Calabasas, CA and Middle School Director at Albany Academies (NY), where she helped shepherd the merger of the Albany Academy and Albany Academy for Girls.  

She has teaching experience at Buckley School, a boys’ school in New York City, and at Albany Academies, teaching second through eighth grade boys and girls.  Marisa is a graduate of Miss Porter’s School and of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and holds Master’s degrees from Hunter College (NY) in Elementary Education and Teacher’s College Columbia University in Private School Leadership.  

With Marisa being located in Los Angeles, Gowan Group expands its reach to the West Coast. She will be actively involved in Head Searches, Enrollment Management projects, Strategic Thinking and Program Development.




When excellence is the goal, partnerships are important to create, especially when the partner is the best in the business. In order to offer a more comprehensive list of marketing services, Gowan Group has recently partnered with Bob Rytter and Jensen Design Studio. A full-service design firm, Jensen Design Studio works with independent schools on brand identity, video, print and web design. While they are based in Baltimore, their client list reaches far and wide across the country.

Partnering with Bob and his team, Gowan Group can now continue our renowned work in research, enrollment management, messaging and branding and ensure brand accuracy with beautiful graphic design, print and video design. Jensen Design Firm and Gowan Group have long been friends, but a partnership now is certainly good news for our existing and new clients. Please visit Jensen Design Studio web site and see their incredible work with independent schools and Institutions of Higher Education.



Recently, our work has become rather intense with many new comprehensive projects in marketing, branding, data collection and analysis, program evaluation, strategic planning, print work, graphic design and administrative searches. We are so grateful that Gowan Group has reached the success it has so far, and we thank so many of you and our clients. New hires, partnerships, clients hiring us for follow-up work and referral calls are all signs that we are doing good things for schools. I think Don Gowan would be proud.

Gowan Group Advances Villa Maria School's Leadership

Gowan Group is pleased to announce the successful completion of two Administrative Searches for Villa Maria School!

Diane McManus has been named Head of School elect. Stephen Bennhoff is the newly selected Assistant Head of School for External Relations. Gowan Group coordinated both searches from conception to completion, and accomplished each within a compressed six-month period. Gowan Group is proud to have worked with Villa Maria School's Board of Trustees, as well as their Head of School Search Committee to reach a positive conclusion to each search.

Our Process: Beginning a Head of School Search 

Gowan Group Consultants began the process of finding candidates for Villa Maria School in December, 2015. A formal announcement from Barbara Ryan, Chairperson of Board of Trustees, was sent to the school community in January, 2016.

A Head of School Search Link on the school's website provided updates throughout Gowan Group's research, interviews, focus groups, and communication.

The Head of School Search Link included the following:

Chris Pryor, Gowan Group's President & Founder, and I are proud of these outstanding selections for these challenging positions. Villa Maria is positioned to advance its standing in the Special Education sector given the exceptional professionals assuming new leadership positions.

About: New Heads of School

Head of School, Diane McManus

Ms. McManus is a longtime State of New York educator and administrator.  She is a certified special education teacher and school management executive. She comes to Villa Maria from Good Counsel Academy where she served as Assistant Principal. Diane has degrees from Lehman College (B.A. in English) and Iona College (M.Ed. English Education).  She looks forward to carrying on the fine work of Sister Carol Ann who so compassionately and expertly has run Villa Maria for decades. Diane lives in Purchase, NY with her husband and children.

Assistant Head of School, Stephen Bennhoff

Mr. Bennhoff is the former Head of School at Pine Point in Connecticut, an independent day school serving PS through 9th grade. An experienced teacher and coach, Stephen most recently served as Director of Enrollment Management at St. Michael’s Country Day School in Newport, RI. Michael graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in Art History. He earned as Master of Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1999. In addition to Michael's professional accomplishments, he is an avid sailor and outdoorsman, and, an accomplished musician. He and his son look forward to their move to Fairfield County this summer.

Written by David Beecher, Managing Director, Gowan Group. To learn more about Gowan Group's Head of School Searches, e-mail Chris Pryor.